A topsy-turvy league
In Major League Baseball, the losing teams today are tomorrow’s contenders, players can turn around fast and analytical tweaks transform teams
Baseball’s cellar and ceiling are closer together than other sports
Perhaps the most important thing that Major League Baseball has taught us in recent years is that winning is possible for everyone. Today’s losers are tomorrow’s contenders, or even champions. Literally.
It is not just that the Chicago Cubs ended their 109-year-old World Series championship drought last season. It is the proliferation of quick turnaround seasons, especially this year. A handful of dreary 2016 flops are now hunting the play-offs.
The Minnesota Twins endured a 59-103 calamity a year ago, the worst of their 56 years in the Twin Cities.
Today they are in wild card position, just behind the league champion Cleveland Indians in the American League Central.
The Arizona Diamondbacks won 69 games in 2016. Now they have the second best record in the National League.
The Milwaukee Brewers won 73 games last year and were fourth in the National League Central, a division they now lead.
The Colorado Rockies are coming off six consecutive losing seasons, but are sitting in control of a wild-card play-off spot halfway through this year. The Tampa Bay Rays won 68 games last season, but now are one only one game out of a wildcard spot.
Baseball is truly the “hope springs eternal” sport.
Contrast it with the National Basketball Association, which produced its oh-so-predictable, third consecutive finals matchup between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The only thing as certain as that meeting was that the Sacramento Kings, the Brooklyn Nets and a handful of others had absolutely no chance of reaching the postseason.
When the National Football League begins play later this summer, rest assured that the Cleveland Browns, Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Rams, Jacksonville Jaguars and Los Angeles Chargers will not be play-offs-bound.
Only the sudden acquisition of a superstar player, or the rare, overnight development of a solid core of players turns NBA and NFL teams from bottom-feeders into instant contenders.
So why is MLB so friendly to the worst-to-first phenomenon? For starters, baseball’s cellar and ceiling are closer together than other sports. MLB’s best teams tend to win about 60 per cent of their games.
The worst teams still win four out of 10. That means there is less ground to make up.
The NBA’s and NFL’s elite teams win at least 75 per cent of their games, while their misfits win just two or three out of 10.
In baseball, even the brightest stars can expect serious performance swings from one year to the next. And good players can be excellent for a season, propelling their teams from bottom shelf to top.
In Arizona, third baseman Jake Lamb is having a breakout year with 17 home runs and 62 runs batted in.
Former Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke has followed up his lousy 2016 with an All-Star-like 2017.
Most importantly, their perennial superstar Paul Goldschmidt is healthy and heroic again, with a 1.027 on base-plus-slugging (OPS).
Sometimes it does not take much. Milwaukee have two newcomers who have lifted them into contention, ahead of the backsliding champion Cubs.
Travis Shaw and Eric Thames have 37 homers and 97 RBI between them.
Analytical tweaks also can help terrible teams improve. Minnesota actively remade themselves into a brilliant defensive team, without sacrificing offence.
Tampa Bay have their usual pitching depth, but also gambled successfully on a line-up packed with one-dimensional sluggers that have them No 3 in homers in MLB.
Baseball has become an optimist’s playground. Yes, the Miami Marlins may be on their way to their eighth consecutive losing season. All that means is, do not dismiss the Fish in ’18.
Joe Mauer, right, high-fives Robbie Grossman of the Minnesota Twins, who are in wild card position a year after suffering their worst defeat.